Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

My Take On The News

 

The Million Man Protest Draws Half a Million

The Knesset has gone back to work, if one can call it work, and this Monday saw a festive opening session that began with a speech from a guest from the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. However, it did not take long to get back to routine. The Knesset has an institution known as a 40-signature debate; this means that if 40 members of the Knesset sign a request, the prime minister is obligated to sit and listen throughout the debate as they heap scorn and insults (or praise, depending on who requested the discussion) on his head. After Kevin McCarthy left, the usual squabbling returned to the Knesset in full force.

At this time of year, many Israeli newspaper writers tend to warn their readers to expect a “hot summer”; this is certainly the case this year. The judicial reform is still at the top of everyone’s minds, and the protests are continuing. Then again, things have changed a bit, since the protests are no longer the exclusive province of the left; the right wing decided to stage its own demonstration, which was somewhat ambitiously labeled a “million man protest.” This demonstration took place last Thursday, and while there weren’t a million people there, the attendance was over half a million, which is probably much greater than the number of people at all the left-wing protests throughout the country every day.

I was in the Knesset last Thursday, while hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating outside in favor of the reform. I did not want to leave the building during the protest, for several reasons, but I had to go home while the demonstration was still taking place, and I had to leave via the Knesset’s emergency exit. That route took me in the direction of the Israel Museum and then the hotel district, where I took a left turn to get to Givat Shaul. It was impossible to take my usual route, and even the side roads that I took turned out to be filled with dozens of parked buses and hundreds of cars. This was a level of congestion that I hadn’t seen during all the protests against the reform. I didn’t have to see the panoramic images of the huge protests to understand their scope; the sight of all the cars parked in every possible spot, including sidewalks and intersections, all the way to Givat Shaul was enough to drive the point home.

The coalition is probably going to have to respond to the ongoing battle and endless hurdles that the opposition plans to mount against it. Experience has shown that their efforts are somewhat akin to keeping the gas pedal down while the car is in neutral. The current opposition, unlike the previous one, has succeeded so far only in inducing fatigue in the government and no more than that. Under the Lapid-Bennett government, the opposition, headed by the Likud and chareidim, likewise wore down the coalition, but in many cases it also managed to defeat the government. The fall of the government was the end result of a series of defeats. But that does not seem to be the fate that lies in store for the current government. The current opposition is plagued by infighting, whereas the previous opposition worked in unity and was highly driven. Netanyahu and his partners in the opposition sat in the Knesset for hours on end, waging war against the government.

Simcha Rothman’s Parents at the Protest

A few meters from my office in the Knesset, there is a door leading to the parking lot. This isn’t the main entrance to the building, where one can always find many security guards, nor is it the main parking lot. This lot was added several years ago due to a shortage of parking spaces, and the entrance was added along with it. Whenever the Knesset is in session, this door is open; after the session ends, the entrance is locked and unmanned. On Sunday and Thursday, when the Knesset is not in session, there is a security guard at the door until 3:00.

How does someone leave the building after that time? There is a telephone number to call, and a guard stationed at a bank of monitors can unlock the door remotely with the press of a button. However, no one is permitted to enter the building through the door at those times, even the person who has just left through it. Someone once slipped in through this entrance after it opened for a person who was leaving the building, and the guards were called immediately to find him.

On Thursday evening, I was sitting in my office when I noticed a woman standing near the door in visible distress. I went outside and found a pleasant-mannered elderly woman standing there along with a young boy who was clearly her grandson. The woman was pushing the door in frustration and could not understand why it wouldn’t open for her. I explained that she would have to call the guards to unlock the door, and she told me that she wanted to return to the parking lot briefly in order to retrieve a folding chair for her husband. “He isn’t capable of standing for long periods of time,” she said. “We are planning to go to the demonstration with our grandson.”

“Where is your husband now?” I asked.

“He’s in my son’s office,” she replied.

“And who is your son?”

“Simcha Rothman,” she said.

I called a security guard and asked him to open the door for the woman and to allow her to return to the building. Naturally, he complied. I also had an opportunity to have a brief conversation with the woman, in which I learned about Simcha and about her other son, Reb Nosson, who teaches in Wolfson’s yeshiva. “Reb Nosson is renowned as a genius,” I informed the mother, who beamed with pride.

“Actually, his name is Boruch Nosson,” she said.

The boy accompanying her was identified as Levanon, a son of Simcha Rothman who learns in Kiryat Arba. After the guard arrived, let her out and then let her in again, I returned to my office. I hope that Mr. and Mrs. Rothman made it back from the demonstration in peace. I am sure that they enjoyed listening to the speech delivered by their son, who stood on the stage with Levanon at his side.

The Public Sides with Bnei Yeshivos

Back to political news: The Knesset will be facing two major hurdles during its summer session. The first is the state budget; it is never easy to pass a budget, which is usually the greatest test of any government. This time, though, it is assumed that the budget will pass with relative ease. The second challenge facing the government is the draft law, and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the government will succeed in passing a law with the support of a majority.

Last week, the protestors against judicial reform discovered the controversy over the draft, and they are now targeting the chareidim with all the ammunition at their disposal. You may remember that I predicted quite some time ago that this would happen; the chareidim are always convenient scapegoats. Today, the protestors are brandishing signs that read, “Without Equality, There Is No Democracy.” One can only expect that they will ramp up the pace and vitriol in their demonstrations as the controversy becomes increasingly contentious. This Thursday, they plan to stage a major anti-chareidi demonstration in Yerushalayim. Perhaps the good thing about this incitement is that anyone who has adopted a draft for chareidim as their personal cause until today has always suffered a stinging defeat.

Netanyahu has already hinted to the leaders of the chareidi parties that he is not sure that the new draft law will pass, mainly because it essentially exempts bnei yeshivos from service. Many believe that the left will accept a bill lowering the age of exemption since they will presume (wrongly, in the chareidi politicians’ eyes) that it will motivate many bnei yeshivos to join the workforce. In any event, the chareidim will need to insist that any new draft law be accompanied by a measure preventing the Supreme Court from striking it down, whether it is an override clause or a new Basic Law concerning Torah learning. In light of the demonstrations and public outrage against judicial reform, Netanyahu claims that he will not be able to provide this.

Of course, that argument seems to be specious, since many believe that the public outrage is not against the reform but against Netanyahu. After all, even though Netanyahu has already agreed to delay the legislation, and the talks over the judicial reform are still underway in the president’s official residence, the demonstrations are continuing. That means that the real issue for the protestors is the fact that he is in power, and that shouldn’t hamper him from passing a law that will solidify the draft exemption.

On Sunday night, an amazing statistic was published: Almost 50 percent of the Israeli public is in favor of exempting bnei yeshivos from army service altogether. That is an important distinction: They are in favor of an outright exemption, not just a deferment. This finding is a direct contradiction to those who claim that the law would be an embarrassment to this country. Many people found this figure astounding, but it shows that in spite of the background noise, the Israeli public truly sides with the bnei yeshivos. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is still afraid to pass such a measure, and that is a real problem.

Likud Slides in Polls

Netanyahu is struggling to contend with internal rifts and rebels within his party. In the past, Yuli Edelstein and his allies were the ones to speak out against what they described as the brutal nature of the judicial reform and the extreme manner in which it was being pursued. This week, it was David Bittan’s turn to make his voice heard. Netanyahu is certainly worried about the dissent within the party ranks; after all, he knows that he will need all 64 votes in the coalition to make the overhaul a reality.

Netanyahu is also troubled by the findings of recent polls. The Likud’s popularity has taken a clear downturn, and every poll shows it losing mandates in an election. Those mandates, believe it or not, are being transferred to Benny Gantz’s party, the National Unity Party, with some polls even showing Gantz outperforming Netanyahu. This is a fairly shocking turnaround, since the Likud party received 30 mandates in the most recent elections while National Unity ended up with 12. Another person who was deeply displeased by these polls was Yair Lapid, who hoped that the votes slipping away from the Likud would somehow reach him. After all, Yesh Atid is ostensibly the real opposition to the Likud.

Then again, this should come as no surprise to anyone. Lapid is steadily losing his stature in Israel. With every speech, he seems to be shooting himself in the foot over and over. His entire bearing seems to indicate that he is frustrated and losing his wits, and there is no sign of any particular intelligence in the moves he has been making. Within the Yesh Atid party, it is understood that Lapid’s conduct is leading him to ruin. This includes his militant stance on judicial reform; Lapid has ruled out even the smallest compromise and refuses even to meet with representatives of the government. The public, meanwhile, has lost patience with this dispute, and it shows in the polls. But that does not change the fact that the person who should be most concerned about the polls is Binyomin Netanyahu.

Speaking of Lapid, the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, was recently interviewed by an Israeli newspaper and remarked, “I have heard about a declaration by a certain well-known politician in Israel, a member of the previous government who was known for his hostile stance toward Poland and the Polish people. Let me put it like this: As far as we are concerned, this man is a pathological liar. He has some sort of political interest of his own in causing a rift between our peoples and our countries. I am not afraid to say that he is harming Israel’s vital interests, including its security interests.”

“Would you like to mention the name of that politician?” the interviewer asked.

“Everyone knows whom I am referring to,” the president of Poland replied.

Fake News

But let me add a few words about the polls. I have written many times in the past about the bias of the Israeli media and its efforts to shape a narrative in the public consciousness. If you would like to see a blatant and despicable example of this, let me say that in almost all the recent polls, the graphics have identified the two political blocs as the supporters and opponents of Netanyahu, respectively. In some of the recent polls, the opposing bloc was about ten mandates larger than the pro-Netanyahu bloc. For instance, Channel 13 recently published a chart showing the pro-Netanyahu bloc receiving 52 mandates while the bloc of his opponents received 63.

This, however, is all fake news. The media always includes the Arabs in the center-left bloc, which serves to confuse the public. If we remove the Arabs from the polls, then there wouldn’t be a single poll, even today, that shows the current opposition outperforming the coalition.

The Arabs will always have between ten and twelve mandates, and there are other ways to label the two blocs. Pollster Camil Fuchs, for instance, prefers to describe them as the coalition bloc and the bloc consisting of the opposition and Balad. That is a bit more accurate, although it is still misleading. Perhaps the most accurate representation is that which is used by Channel 14, which separates the right wing, the center-left, and the Arabs into three distinct groups. Even in the poll mentioned above, which I find very hard to accept as an accurate representation, the results should have been shown as 52 mandates on the right and between 50 and 52 on the left; the Arab mandates should not have been taken into account. (Remember, Mansour Abbas will not be able to expect a veritable sea of funding from Ganz in the same way that he was able to elicit funds from Lapid and Bennett, so there is no reason to count any of the Arabs as part of the left.)

The Israeli Population in Numbers

We have all forgotten the Yom Haatzmaut festivities in Israel already, but I have two comments to make as the legal holiday recedes into the past.

First the Central Bureau of Statistics releases the latest figures on the Israeli populace every year on Yom Haatzmaut, including the number of births and deaths. As of the day before the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence, the population of Israel was listed at 9,727,000, of which 7,145,000 (or 73.5 percent) are Jewish, two million (or 21 percent) are Arabs, and 534,000 (or 5.5 percent) fit into other categories. In the year that elapsed since the previous Yom Haatzmaut, the population of Israel grew by 2.3 percent, with an additional 216,000 people. During this time, about 183,000 children were born, about 79,000 people immigrated to Israel, and about 51,000 people passed away. The population of the State of Israel today is about 12 times its size at the time of its founding, when the country consisted of only 806,000 people. Since the founding of the state, over 3.3 million immigrants have moved to Israel, about 1.5 million (43.7 percent) of whom arrived in the year 1990 or later. About 149,000 returning citizens have also come to Israel since the founding of the state. Based on the statistics and estimates by experts, the population of Israel is expected to reach 11.1 million in the year 2030, 13.2 million in 2040, and 15.2 million by the 100th anniversary of the state’s founding, in 2048. At the end of the year 2021, about 46 percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in Israel, and about 79 percent of the Jews in Israel were “sabras” (Israeli-born). The Israeli population is also considered young; about 28 percent of the population consists of children between the ages of 0 and 14, and about 12 percent are at least 65 years old.

On a more refreshing note, over the course of Yom Haatzmaut, which is an official vacation day in Israel, dozens of shiurim were held. I personally encountered three notices about different all-day learning programs. One was in the Ohel Yitzchok shul, which is presumably named for Rav Yitzchok Abuchatzeirah, the Baba Chaki, who served as the rov of Ramle; another was in Kiryat Malachi, where the speakers were to include the maggid Rav Boruch Rosenblum, Rav Binyomin Choteh, Rav Snir Guetta, and the Kaliver Rebbe; and the third was in Mussayof, where the audience was to be addressed by numerous speakers including Rav Reuven Elbaz, Rav Yitzchok Yosef, and Rav Meir Pinchasi. And there were certainly many more such programs as well. In other words, tens of thousands of people throughout the country took advantage of the vacation day for Torah learning!

Tickets to Meron Snapped Up Within Hours

This Monday, the masses will begin flocking to Meron, while all of us daven fervently for this year’s hillula to end without incident—and, in fact, to be celebrated joyously. The designated minister responsible for the event (Meir Porush) and the Meron project manager (Yossi Deutsch) are certainly doing their best. Let us hope that they succeed.

Much of what will happen depends on the public. If the celebrants in Meron obey the safety instructions, then the event will pass without incident and, in fact, with great success. If every person is given five hours to spend on the mountaintop, then every person must abide by that limit. Anyone who overextends his stay will be doing so at the expense of others.

There is no question that there will be huge crowds in Meron this year. As soon as registration opened for bus and train tickets, which are distributed by the Ministry of Transportation (where Uri Maklev serves as a deputy minister), tens of thousands of tickets were purchased. There were 200,000 tickets available for purchase, twice as many as last year. Every ticket permits the holder to spend five hours on the mountaintop; the exact hours are specified on each ticket. Of course, visitors are also permitted to travel in their private cars, but they will have to park in lots that are somewhat distant from the site and then take shuttles to get there. This year, the Ministry of Transportation is introducing new options for visitors to return home by train. Again, we must daven that the day goes by in peace.

Incidentally, immediately before Lag Ba’omer will be the hillula of Rabi Meir Baal Haness, which is observed every year at the kever of Rabi Meir Baal Haness in Teveria. Bli neder, I will report to you on this event as well.

Chillul Shabbos at the Duty-Free Shops?

Ben-Gurion Airport seems to be perennially in the headlines. First there was an airport employee who shut down the entire airport in order to pressure Netanyahu to delay the judicial reform. That was utterly infuriating. More recently, there was a report about a captain on an El Al flight who decided to preach to his passengers over the in-flight sound system about the “fight for democracy.” Before the plane landed in New York, he announced that he apologized. Of course, he clearly had a reason for that: Pilots will never show remorse unless they are concerned about their salaries and pensions.

The airport terminal has also featured in recent headlines. I read a recent news story about a woman who answered a help wanted ad for James Richardson, the company that runs the duty-free shops at Ben-Gurion airport, and who was rejected after the managers realized that she observes Shabbos. The company was accused of discrimination, and a spokesperson responded that they respect everyone and that they would investigate the incident. Of course, no one would ever have imagined that a company that operates its stores on Shabbos would hire a woman who observes Shabbos. But what should be more disturbing about this is the notion that the duty-free stores in Ben Gurion Airport are open on Shabbos.

This is just as disappointing as the report that these stories deliberately refrain from selling their chometz for Pesach, which is a policy that is not only offensive but actively harms religious travelers.

Rav Auerbach on Rav Tzadkah

A yungerman who is a tremendous masmid, the unofficial rov of a shul, and the director of a local chessed organization, met me and said, “Listen to what I read this week. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once attending an event where he met Rav Yehuda Tzadkah. Rav Auerbach shook hands warmly with Rav Tzadkah and seemed to be overjoyed at seeing him. After Rav Tzadkah had gone on his way, Rav Auerbach turned to the yungerman accompanying him and said, ‘There are many reasons to appreciate the rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef. He even has one special attribute that no one else in the world possesses.’ The yungerman looked up in interest, and Rav Shlomo Zalman said, ‘His name appears in the Torah—in the posuk that says, ‘Vayomer Yehuda tzadkah mimeni.’”

That same yungerman, who lives in Neve Yaakov, said to me, “We have a thriving Sephardic shul here, and the building is far too small for the congregation. Perhaps the new Minister of Religious Services can help us build a new building…. Anyway, I have a different point to make. There is a certain local resident who is responsible for the towels in the shul. Several years ago, he told us that he would take it on as his personal project to keep the towels clean. He arrives here every motzoei Shabbos, takes all the towels in the shul to his home, and then returns them freshly laundered a few days later. It is a wonderful mitzvah that he has taken upon himself. It might not be very difficult work, but the regular commitment is certainly not easy.”

I was about to thank him for the story, but he stopped me in my tracks. “I’m not done yet,” he said. “Not long ago, this man moved to a new apartment further away in the neighborhood. It was quite clear that his longtime project would no longer be a realistic endeavor for him, but he decided that he was unwilling to give up this mitzvah, and he continued coming here every motzoei Shabbos to collect the towels.” I smiled and prepared to thank him for the story again, but he still wasn’t finished.

“Do you know who that man is?” he asked. “Today, he is the Minister of Religious Affairs.”

I couldn’t help but be filled with admiration at that point. Here is a man who serves as a member of the Knesset and a government minister, yet does not consider it beneath his dignity to wash the towels in a shul every week.

A Poignant Event

The new bais medrash of Kehillas Yosef Chaim in Neve Yaakov recently held a celebration in honor of the laying of its cornerstone. The kehillah is a community of yungeleit who have taken it upon themselves to build something that is far beyond their natural abilities. The event was especially poignant because it was held in the shul at the site of the recent terror attack. The shul belongs to the Sephardic community, but its courtyard is occupied by caravans belonging to the Ashkenazic community in question, who are working to build a more permanent structure for their shul. This event took place exactly two months after the terror attack.

The celebratory event was attended by hundreds of bnei Torah. Construction is finally underway on the new magnificent bais medrash building in the heart of Neve Yaakov. The rov of the community is Rav Shimon Zaivald, and it is the largest community in central Neve Yaakov (as opposed to the chareidi area of the neighborhood). Today, the kehillah davens in a caravan, where kollelim and minyanim operate around the clock. The dedicated gabboim—Rabbi Moshe Meir Segal, Rabbi Chezky Katz, and Rabbi Yosef Finzel—have been working for years to find a location for a new building that will provide for the needs of the rapidly growing kehillah. In addition to the bais medrash and side rooms for tefillah, the new building will include a library, a mikveh, and a simcha hall. Now that the land allocation has been finalized and the building permits have been issued, work has finally begun on the new edifice.

The event was attended by the rabbonim of Neve Yaakov, Rav Tzvi Weber and Rav Yisroel Yitzchok Zilberman, and the rov of the community, Rav Shimon Zaivald. Other distinguished rabbonim who came to show solidarity with the community included Rav Aharon Feldman, Rav Yehoshua Eichenstein, and Rav Chizkiyohu Yosef Schreiber, who were honored with beginning the process of laying the foundations of the new bais medrash. The crowd then burst into song and dance, and the neighborhood of Neve Yaakov rejoiced.

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